It would be easy to dismiss Brendan Connell’s Jottings From a Far Away Place as obscurantist. Often it is tempting.
The book is divided into a series of cryptically titled chapters such as “Giggling Flutes” or “Many-Colored Eyebrows” that bundle together a series of bizarro aphorisms, short-stories, prose poems, list and sketches without any apparent unifying principle. A section labeled “Maladjustment” encompasses a list of “Annoying Things” — such as “the sound of a clock”, “people who talk too loudly outside their houses” and “too many quickly moving legs” — alongside a vignette about Rex Brown, an artist whose choice media includes twigs and roots, and a nouveau Zen koan asking, “Where was he who invented curtains reincarnated?”
Longer, more properly formed stories are uniformly surreal — one particular favorite concerns a man who finds his long-lost pet lobster has been masquerading as an old acquaintance’s wife for some time — and too often vanish midway through the telling only to conclude in another chapter after ten, 20, 30 pages of absence. There’s a playfulness and a limberness to both the abstruse content and the shifting structure of these writings that keeps the collection constantly engaging, but which also lends it a disturbingly self-serving feel. After too long it begins to seem as if the author is playing with the reader not for their amusement but for his own. As if the only thing he has learned from the aphorisms and koans he imitates so well is that they are excellent for stumping the questioned while effortlessly elevating the status of the questioner.
Slowly, though, and with more careful reading, constants begin to emerge. They aren’t patterns, not quite, these constants. They do not recur regularly enough; there is no rhythm to when or how they will reappear. They suggest themselves in brief, maddening glimpses, like the details hidden in a mosaic one glimpses only from the proper angle and only when the mosaic is cast in the proper light. Narrative similarities, being the largest, are most easily seen.
Connell announces as early as his second piece an interest in how “silly men can often become the most cruel, and they are the ones who end up in power” and proceeds to pepper his collection with a veritable parade of absurd dictators who prefer “the sound of shrieks, and the sound of pounding… to music” and the kind of so-called holy men who might be more accurately described as shameless sensualists. More subtly, images that seemed confined to a single moment reappear unexpectedly, changed in context but still unmistakably the same. When one reads of “a clearing where everyone was wearing a mask… some like grotesque birds… others pigs or insect-like entities”, for example, one immediately recalls an earlier vignette about “streets crawling with men, the faces of oxen, mules, chipmunks, ferrets” which itself suggests a still earlier story about a hunter put to trial by a collection of Egyptian gods whose visages he initially mistakes for “a backdrop of masks… or faces of beasts.” A certain transitional logic, more dreamlike than literal, begins to announce itself.
Then, finally, one comes to understand that what seemed tics of style, such as a private lexicon of euphemisms, e.g., fingers are “white tentacles”, space is “vulvic”, tongues are “muscle of evil thought”, prostitution is “quadrupedal criminality”. Entirely coherent sentences will often melt into poetics, e.g., “Things were composed standing in crowds the stench of subways some lonely bum pushing way soaked in his own piss…” as something more intentioned. The play was not at one’s own expense but to one’s own benefit and that the author’s goal is less that of creating a precise, concrete image than it is of leaving the reader with an indefinite but haunting impression.
This is not to say that Connell is incapable of precision. In fact, it would be impossible to create situations this perfectly realized, or descriptions so evocative, without an impeccable sense of language and detail. His best vignettes recall the austere humor and the psychological frankness of Lydia Davis. “There was a man who painted a very beautiful picture. ‘That is awful, said his friend,” runs one of the finer snippets, and in its two lines conveys fully a relationship between friends that is plagued by unvoiced resentment and festering jealousies. We do not need to be told the specifics of the relationship, the how and the why and where of this contempt’s origins, because Connell has made the present reality so hilariously and sadly familiar that we recall at once our own secret competition with friends and so can immediately assume the details for ourselves.
Because of Connell’s powers of suggestion, we read of someone who professes that “snowy nights are for drinking alone”, that “hot days are for walking alone”, and feel acutely their overriding isolation long before they implores us to “please, listen”. If he does not develop these sketches into something larger, it’s not because he lacks the ability to. Many of his most striking pieces are the more traditional short stories. The chronicle of a marriage breaking down over a slaughtered goat is a nearly perfect horror story that achieves unsettling effect not by overblown imagery but by flawlessly deliberate pacing and carefully chosen details. There is not a supernatural whiff to the story but when Anna, the wife, notices her husband and his friend skinning a rabbit, how they “turn it(s) [fur] inside out like a glove”, it’s so carefully deployed, the description so perfectly chosen, that it convincingly transforms that final moment of romantic disenchantment into a scene of primal evil.
No, Connell leaves these fragments as they are because he is such a peerless stylist. He knows too well the varied demands of different forms and so allows himself a playful plasticity that other, more cautious writers never dare. His best mythological sketches seem like the pieces of some lost epic, while his Taoist parables read like gathered bits of folklore found during some global sojourn rather than the product of a thoroughly modern mind, because he knows better than to overburden intentionally simplistic forms with details that only rob them of their suggestive power. His Biblically flavored nightmares seem like long-lost apocrypha because he has jettisoned the modern narrative conventions that favor nuanced depictions of psychology and environment for a voice that favors grand atmosphere. He even knows the various demands of the genres so well that he is able to believably (and without a whiff of the precious) roll the characters and dialects of both Slim Pickens and Hank Williams into a Chinese folktale.
It’s a dangerous approach to take, certainly; a combination of a too-playful love of language and too-loose structuring often leads lesser authors to certain indulgences that even Connell, consummate a stylist though he is, falls prey to. An excessive love of puns and sexual farce finds him too often sacrificing the deeper humor hiding within a story in pursuit of a few more bawdy bits of wordplay. Occasional grasps for grandiloquence make earlier concerns about pretension again plausible: there is no good reason, poetic or otherwise, to describe a woman’s memory of a horse as “some sphalerite canter tied down in a cocoon of that great Clydesdale”. Unrestrained, Connell’s greatest strengths start to warp into his most hobbling vices: what was once clear becomes blurred, what was striking becomes bludgeoning, what was insightful becomes too clever by half.
Yet it seems petty to fault an artist for grasping when his grip is otherwise so firm. What is one botched attempt at depicting the beauty of a horse in motion when compared against the way Connell finds in a new father’s anxiety the image of “a calf turned bull… pawing the ground… snorting under the strain of an expanding belly and a shrinking imagination?” A hundred pseudo-philosophical pronouncements along the lines of “all the words in the world can be wrapped in a ball” would be worth even one story so well-observed as that of the monks Madhusudan and Vishvatma and their mutual revelation that “attachment really is the murder of friendship”; Connell affords dozens.
When the artist is otherwise so competent, so self-assured, so capable, these small stylistic indulgences start to feel less like an ugly blemish on his work and more like the natural imperfections of a unique, assured voice willing to sacrifice bland professionalism in pursuit of something wilder. Connell himself seems wryly aware of this, cautioning often against an undue devotion to perfection. “Don’t be too exact. Sloppiness makes excellence,” he advises just pages into the book; a later maxim warns “harmony is overrated”. These are odd — and slightly obnoxious — admonishments from a writer who deftly shapes bombastic chaos into subtle order, but Connell is that rare writer who has the artistically essential courage of his convictions and his failures both.
Jottings From a Far Away Place is that rare book which is not afraid to sacrifice more comfortable pleasures for something less definite but, ultimately, all the more beautiful.